Dining out with Moira Hodgson

Midtown Newcomer Keeps Chinese

Tradition in the Kitchen

Cinnabar, a new Chinese restaurant on the West Side of midtown Manhattan, is not some neon and Formica hole in the wall where you hunker down with a pile of paper napkins and a bottle of Tsingtao and order by number. It’s a fancy Cantonese and Szechuan restaurant that has just opened in a prime spot opposite the Random House Inc. tower, just a block from the new AOL Time Warner headquarters.

The enormous space that was formerly Tapika has been transformed: It now feels like a sleek Los Angeles restaurant. The low-lit dining room is a warm, earthy red (the color from which Cinnabar derives its name), with green banquettes and chairs swathed in pale green slipcovers. Large ebony tables are set with black lacquer chopsticks cradled on black river stones, and the windows are hung with slatted blinds that let in slivers of street light at night, making the space look like a setting for a 1940’s Hollywood thriller. Suspended along the ceiling are wires supporting two rows of folded white napkins. A narrow line of lights spanning the length of the room shine onto a display of clear, square vases filled with black branches that look like giant twists of petrified licorice. Beyond is a gleaming open kitchen manned by a team of Chinese cooks.

Cinnabar bills itself as an “American-Chinese” restaurant (as opposed to a “Chinese-American” restaurant). This, according to owners Nick and John Racanelli of Racanelli Restaurants Inc., translates to “an American imprint on the design and service” (in other words, no neon or Formica) that keeps the Chinese tradition “where it really counts-in the kitchen.”

Someone here has a sense of humor. Cinnabar’s focus may be Cantonese food, but it has a pupu platter, just like Trader Vic’s.The smell of Sterno wafting up from a pupu platter that was delivered to our table one evening took me back years-down to the Trader Vic’s that used to be in the basement of the Plaza Hotel, with its soundtrack of South Seas music, whirring blenders and tipsy college kids twiddling skewers over those blue flames, like Boy Scouts cooking marshmallows around a campfire. Cinnabar’s pupu platter features spare ribs, dumplings, spicy chicken wings and spring rolls. The fare is not especially exciting, but the portions are generous. The only things that really needed cooking, however, were the small wooden skewers-a 50’s throwback-which were threaded with raw shrimp, green pepper and pineapple chunks.

There are exotic drinks, too, such as a Global Blossom (gin, lemon, cassis and prosecco), but they don’t come in ceramic glasses shaped like topless dancing girls or in communal bowls floating with magnolia blossoms. The house cocktail, Jade Bliss (a blend of vodka, Kalamansi lime juice and green tea, decorated with kaffir lime leaves), is served straight up in a martini glass, and it’s delicious: mildly potent and not too sweet. The wine list, made up of interesting selections from small vineyards, is divided into sections with headings like “Pale Flower,” “Lush Fruit” and “Pungent Spice.”

Chef Vincent Cheng came to New York from Hong Kong, via Los Angeles. In addition to the extensive list of Cantonese dishes on the menu, he serves as mattering of Hunan, Szechuan and Mandarin specialties-the sort of multi-regional variety Americans have come to expect when they eat Chinese. The barbecue oven in the kitchen yields pork, which was a little dry but had good flavor, and a whole flattened duck which, hacked up into moist, tender pieces with a crisp skin, was terrific (it also comes in a complete Peking Duck dinner for two, with pancakes).

The “extra large oyster” was the size of a coffee saucer. Steamed with black bean sauce, it was fresh and briny. Minced chicken with pine nuts was also very good; it was brought to the table by a young woman from Shanghai who had gently wrapped it into neat, small packages made from lettuce leaves. Her careful work came to naught, however, when I took the first bite and the entire filling oozed out; this is not a dish to eat when you’re trying to impress someone with your table manners. The Moo Shu pork was first-rate, made with exceptionally light, thin pancakes that were wrapped around a shredded pork filling-also a challenge to eat.

Our young waiter, who was dressed in an all-black uniform (like the henchman in a James Bond movie), urged us to try the Dungeness crab in curry sauce. There are six preparations listed for the crab, but this one was not on the menu. Our waiter insisted it was the best and, to encourage us further, said he’d ask the kitchen to take the crab out of the shell. He returned moments later, abashed. “I’m sorry,” he told us, “but they said the crab would get cold if they did that.”

That was probably the least of what the kitchen had to say to him. The crab had already been chopped, shell and all, into bite-size pieces and was coated in a thick brown sauce that looked like mud. A little metal digging instrument was served with the dish, but basically there was only one way to extract the meat, which was to put the whole piece into your mouth and suck it out. It was the messiest thing I have ever eaten. It was also one of the best dishes I had at Cinnabar: The curry sauce was spicy, but subtle enough to complement the sweetness of the crab without overwhelming it. We ordered rice to mop it up.

On my next visit, I tried the frogs’ legs. The kitchen makes them five different ways (and I’m sure you could get them in the curry sauce, too). On this occasion, our waitress was as boot-faced as our first waiter had been charming. When pressed, she suggested we try the salt-and-pepper version. It gave a nice crunchy texture to the legs, which, as you know, taste just like chicken and can be quite bland. Juicy shrimp scented with Grand Marnier, soft-shell crabs with scallions and garlic, and a whole sea bass-snowy and tender under a crispy crust-completed the dinner.

Despite her lack of enthusiasm, our waitress was skillful in urging too much food upon the table, thus jacking up the bill. At the end of the meal (which had already added up to $60 a head with the least expensive wines), she even tried to get us to order tea at $6 a cup.

Most Westerners find Chinese desserts a bit of an effort. Cinnabar circumvents the issue altogether by offering an all-American fudge sundae in three sizes; there’s also a platter of fruit. With the bill, you get chocolate fortune cookies, hygienically wrapped in cellophane bags, with pompous sayings inside like “Good to begin well, better to end well.” And since this is an “American-Chinese” restaurant, the busboy brought over twirls of cotton candy on sticks and set them on the table. A nice touch.

cinnabar

one star

235 West 56th Street

399-1100

dress: Business (bring a bib for the crab)

noise level: Fine

wine list: Rotating list of around

70 bottles from small producers, reasonably priced

credit cards: All major

price range: Main courses,

$12 to $29

hours: Open seven days a week, noon to midnight